Mastering Heartbreak Hill at the Boston Marathon

If you are running the Boston Marathon or following it in some way, I’m sure you’ve heard about Heartbreak Hill, the most infamous part of the Boston Marathon course.

It’s a relatively short part of the course, but it can make or break your race if you’re not prepared for it.

Personally, I believe the struggle is more mental than physical. Let’s learn all about the hill so you are as prepared as possible. You can read my review of the Boston Marathon here.

History of Heartbreak Hill

Although this hill can definitely break your heart and drain your energy, the story of how it got its name is very interesting.

The name “Heartbreak Hill” comes from a tough story during the 1936 Boston Marathon. This part of the race is really hard and means a lot because of what happened back then. John A. Kelley, who had won the Boston Marathon twice, was ahead and trying to win again. He passed another runner, Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, on the hills in Newton. But when they got to the last and hardest hill, Brown passed Kelley and won. People say Kelley was so upset it was like his heart was broken. That’s how the hill got its name, “Heartbreak Hill.”

Heartbreak Hill gets a lot of attention, but it might not be the biggest challenge

If you only consider the length and grade of the hill, it’s not that challenging.

It’s a combination of the rolling hills in the first part of the course (net downhill), and it’s the fourth of a series of hills starting at mile 16.

Heartbreak Hill is famous, but it’s just one part of a series of four hills in the Boston Marathon known as the Newton Hills. These hills start around the 16-mile mark and continue until the 21st mile. While Heartbreak Hill is the last and most talked about, the entire sequence of hills can be quite challenging for runners.

The first of the hills begins just after the 16-mile point. Though it’s not as famous as Heartbreak Hill, it starts to test the runners’ stamina and strength. The second and third hills add to this challenge, gradually wearing down the runners as they approach the final and most famous hill.

Heartbreak Hill might get the spotlight because it’s the last hill and comes at a point where runners are already tired, mile 20. But it’s important to remember that it’s the combination of all four hills that really tests the runners. Each hill contributes to the overall challenge, making the elevation gain of this part of the course a crucial part of the Boston Marathon.

Runners need to be prepared for all of them, not just Heartbreak Hill, to do well in the race.

How Long is Heartbreak Hill?

Heartbreak Hill is approximately 0.6 miles long (about 800 meters). It starts just after the 20-mile mark of the Boston Marathon course and stretches up to around the 21-mile point. While this distance might not seem very long, the hill’s placement near the end of the marathon makes it a significant challenge for runners who are already fatigued from the miles they’ve covered.

The incline isn’t extremely steep, and I believe that’s part of its difficulty. If you don’t know there is a hill, you won’t be able to see it, but after a few minutes, you will start to see your pace slow down. And it’s exactly here that many marathon runners start to feel discouraged.

One big silverlining, is that when you are done with this part of the course, you have a nice downhill section where you can pick up the pace.

Look at the image below. I want as slow as 5:20/km at the end of the hill, to 3:44/km just 4 minutes later.

Heartbreak Hill Boston Marathon

Physical and Mental Training Tips

No matter how much you train or how cautiously you pace yourself in the first part of the marathon, these hills will inevitably slow you down.

It’s a simple matter of physics: running uphill requires more energy because you’re working against gravity. Your body has to exert extra effort to move upwards, which can drain your energy faster than running on flat ground, and trying to push through them can be more costly later than letting your pace slip a little. Because remember, you still have 5 miles more to go.

Even the most seasoned runners find their pace reduced on these inclines. That said, there are still ways to prepare and strategies to employ that can help you conquer Heartbreak Hill more effectively. Here are some tips to tackle the hill, keeping in mind that while you can’t defy gravity, you can certainly learn to navigate it better.

Physical Preparation Strategies

  1. Hill Training: Incorporate hill repeats into your training routine. Find a hill similar in length and grade to Heartbreak Hill and run up and down several times. This not only builds leg strength but also helps you develop a strategy for tackling inclines.

  2. Distance Runs: Long-distance runs are crucial. They help your body get used to the fatigue you’ll experience by the time you reach Heartbreak Hill. Gradually increase your mileage to build endurance.

  3. Pace Practice: Learn to manage your pace. It’s tempting to go fast downhill or try to speed up too much on the uphills. Practice pacing on varied terrains so you can conserve energy for the later stages of the marathon.

  4. Strength Training: Include exercises that strengthen your legs, core, and back. Stronger muscles are better equipped to handle the demands of hills and can help prevent injury.

Mental Preparation Techniques

  1. Visualization: Regularly visualize the course, especially the Newton Hills leading up to Heartbreak Hill. Imagine yourself successfully navigating the incline, which can boost your confidence on race day.

  2. Strategy Planning: Have a plan for the hill. Decide in advance whether you’ll maintain pace, slow down, or use a particular running form. Knowing your strategy can reduce anxiety and help maintain focus.

  3. Positive Reinforcement: Develop a mantra or set of affirmations that you can repeat to yourself during tough parts of the race. Positive self-talk can be a powerful tool for overcoming challenging moments.

  4. Stress Management: Practice stress-reducing techniques like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. Being able to calm your nerves and maintain composure can make a significant difference in your performance.

By combining these physical and mental preparation strategies, you’ll be better equipped to confidently and resiliently tackle Heartbreak Hill and the rest of the Boston Marathon.

Diego Alcubierre, a passionate runner and coach, started his journey at 26 with a 10k time of 1:06:23 and has since slashed 30 minutes off his personal record. With five running and coaching certifications, Diego is committed to sharing his expertise and proven strategies to help runners of all levels enhance their performance, stay motivated, and enjoy the journey of running. At Bannister, he simplifies complex training concepts, empowering you to achieve your running goals.